The Kiln, the Alembic, and the Clockwork: Inside the CSMBR Summer School

A Report by Lola Digard

The Centre for the Study of Medicine and the Body in the Renaissance (CSMBR) is an international institute of advanced studies belonging to the Fondazione Comel. Between the 29th and the 31st of March, the centre held a summer school entitled The Kiln, The Alembic and The Clockwork, in Pisa, in which I participated. This summer school gathered mostly young researcher around a few experienced keynote speakers, amongst which some famous names, such as Vivian Nutton, to discuss the transmission of medical knowledge from the Greek masters of antiquity to the Renaissance man. 

The summer school is open to anyone, but the Fondazione awards five participation grants each year to allow young researchers to not only attend the summer school, but also share their research with the rest of the participants. Each day was organized around several presentations by the keynote speakers, followed by a discussion. The afternoon was concluded by a round table where participants were encouraged to discuss a chosen subject, presented through (audio)visual, textual and sometimes musical supports. Each day ended by a visit of a cultural site in Pisa, and the participants were invited to dinner on the last evening.

I cannot begin to describe my experience, without saying a few words about the amazing place that is the Domus Commeliana, home of the Fondazione in Pisa. Located right next to the leaning tower, which oversees its gardens, the villa is the ideal space to assemble and discuss ideas, in the Italian sun and tradition. 

The concept of a summer school, rather than a conference, is really put forward by the organizers with the idea of creating an atmosphere that encourages debates and discussions, and allows younger scholars to feel comfortable engaging with the more experienced ones. Each intervention was well framed and made accessible to all researcher interested in the history of medicine, since (and that was also one of the interests of this event) the present researchers had a very varied set of specializations. Indeed, the award-winning presentations included subjects as diverse as the conception and production of prosthetic limbs in 16th century Germany, or the redaction by authors otherwise known for their scientific production, of poetic texts with a scientific subject. 

One of the highlights of the summer school was the possibility of exchanging ideas with scholars interested in such a variety of subjects. Being able to engage with these speakers, and with other young scholars was a great experience for everyone, and lively conversations took place both during lunch and breaks, but also in the evening, when we dinned in the great Pisan restaurants recommended by the organizers. The work of Tomaso Maria Pedrotti Del’Acqua, who is in charge of the Fondazione in Pisa, helped put everybody at ease, and create the warm atmosphere that presided the debates. 

In terms of the content, the school reached its  announced goal of “exploring  how the representation of the body and its functions changes from antiquity to the early modern period and how technology alters the perception of what we are as human animals.” 

Each day was dedicated to a specific scientific process, both inside and outside the body, and connected to the technological analogy usually used to represent this concept, i.e. the process of combination and concoction of humors was discussed along with the analogy of the kiln. This approach allowed to explore how the intercommunication of technology and medical science was beneficial for the development of both fields, and how technological advances modified the perception of the physical body. 

The wide temporal scope proposed by the program was addressed by the intervention of scholars such as Vivian Nutton and Hiro Hirai on the one hand, whose comparative work gave an in-depth analysis of the transmission of antique medical knowledge to renaissance thinkers. The interventions of scholars more specifically concerned with Renaissance perspectives derived from ancient Greek concepts, such as Fabrizio Bigotti and Benjamin Goldberg on the other hand, outlined how the multiplicity of knowledge of certain personalities of the Renaissance allowed them to combine medical and technical abilities to develop new perceptions of the body. As often, the discussion slightly leaped over some important interventions of the medieval period. This position can however be justified by the focus of the centre and the participants on the early modern period. 

The subjects discussed during these three days made me reflect on the possibility of using actor-network theory to explore the influence of technological innovations on the development of medical knowledge and health initiatives. For example, did the technologies developed in the Low Countries to control water flows in cities lead to the development of medical technologies designed to control humoral flows in the body? 

However, the most relevant insight I got from my participation in the summer school came from my exchanges with other scholars. Several of the participants told me that one of the experiences that helped them understand the challenges of acquiring and communicating medical knowledge in a technological context far different from ours, was attending a medical autopsy. If the idea first seemed a bit surprising (and quite frankly not really appealing), I quickly realized how insightful it could be. Whether it be from science classes or the doctor’s office, the general image we have of the interior of the body, is one of the neatly separated organs, usually each coloured in a different shade of red or blue, easily identifiable. The reality of opening a corpse is far different from this aesthetically pleasing and easily understandable image of the body. And even then, in modern autopsies, whether of legal or medical interest, technologies allow us to keep some of the most trivial aspects of opening a corpse, such as the smell, at bay. These conversations with other scholars convinced me that the challenges that understanding the body represented in the medieval context can be better understood by coming in contact with the reality of the corpse. That is why I have decided to get in contact with medical universities to see if I could attend an autopsy. If my attempts are successful, I will describe my experience in a future post. 

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